Page last updated at 11:04 GMT, Saturday, 9 July 2011 12:04 UK

Italy's most popular politician (he's not Berlusconi)

Giorgio Napolitano
President Giorgio Napolitano is basking in 80% approval ratings

By David Willey
BBC News, Rome

Italian politics is difficult to follow even for Italians.

My own feeling is that trying to explain the Machiavellian machinations of parliament in Rome to foreigners may be - as Mussolini himself once admitted in a revealing moment of truth about his experiences in governing Italy - simply futile.

Too many names, too many political parties (more than 20 at the last elections), too many plots and sub-plots, and characters and "portaborse" - a lovely Italian word meaning "briefcase carriers", the obsequious yet pushy political wannabes who cluster around party leaders.

Giorgio Napolitano and Silvio Berlusconi
Polls show Giorgio Napolitano is far more popular than Silvio Berlusconi

But standing head and shoulders above the rest is a former Communist apparatchik who converted many years ago to social democracy.

For the past five years Giorgio Napolitano has been Italy's elected head of state.

He lives amid the tapestried and frescoed splendour of a gigantic 400-year-old former Papal Palace in the centre of Rome, keeping a steady hand on the tiller of a country in the throes of deep political, economic and social malaise.

As Italy's favourite politician, he has a popularity rating of 80%. By comparison, Silvio Berlusconi has a meagre 30%.

Unlike President Sarkozy of France however, President Napolitano is a non-executive president with largely ceremonial functions.

Yet he is the person who has to appoint a new prime minister every time there is a government crisis. And he is the guarantor of Italy's constitution, hammered out immediately after World War II by the founding fathers of the republic following two decades of Fascist rule.

He has proven a staunch defender of the values of the now mostly long-dead statesmen who set up Italy's first modern republic

I first met Mr Napolitano in the 1970s when he represented the moderate wing of the Italian Communist party that was entirely acceptable to the European and American left.

He was the only senior party functionary to speak fluent English, and was warmly welcomed in the United States when he delivered a series of lectures at leading universities there in 1978.

I remember interviewing him in his sparsely decorated and modest office at Communist Party Headquarters in Rome's Street of the Dark Shops during those years, and found him an open and cultured politician, not at all afraid to challenge the hegemony of the Soviet Union.

How times change.

The president has actually outlived the party which brought him to political prominence.

The Communist Party Headquarters was sold off to a development company a few years ago.

Giorgio Napolitano (C) at the tomb of Italian King Vittorio Emanuele II inside the Pantheon during celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of Italy's unification
The president been officiating at unification ceremonies

Mr Napolitano's former office is now part of a block of luxury apartments.

He later became a strong critic of Soviet foreign policy, roundly condemning the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s (during which he also came round to being a supporter of Nato).

President Napolitano, balding now - he has never felt it necessary to resort to a facelift or hair transplant to conceal his age - walks with a slight stoop, but his voice is still forceful.

He is still a man of great dignity, as I saw for myself during a recent visit to the Quirinal Palace where he has an expert staff sifting through the various laws sent for his signature by parliament.

His power to reject laws is limited, but he has learned to respect the spirit as well as the letter of the laws he is called on to countersign.

He has proven a staunch defender of the values of the now mostly long-dead statesmen who set up Italy's first modern republic.

The bespectacled former Communist party leader is a meticulous observer of protocol, accompanied on all ceremonial occasions by the imposingly tall members of the presidential guard of honour dressed in their polished brass breast-plates and plumed helmets.

It has been a busy year for the president, travelling up and down the peninsula officiating at ceremonies marking the 150th anniversary of the unification of this patchwork of former independent states into a united country for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire.

Italian Republic presidential palace, Palazzo del Quirinale in downtown Rome
Italy's president resides in the Palazzo del Quirinale in downtown Rome

In a keynote speech the president quoted the stark words of the 19th Century Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini (another Anglophile who spent long periods of his life in London) about the abject state of his fellow countrymen before unification.

"We have no flag," Mazzini lamented in 1844, "no name in politics, no voice among the nations of Europe, no common centre, no common treaty, no common market.

"We are dismembered into eight separate states, separated by eight customs barriers - eight different currencies, systems of weights and measures, of civil and criminal law."

That has all been resolved long ago, but the former divisions of Italy remain stubbornly present as the country struggles to deal with such chronic problems as the disposal of the 2,000 tonnes of trash generated each day in the city of Naples, which has run out of landfills where it can be dumped.

President Napolitano recently made a heartfelt appeal to the other regions of Italy to play their part in resolving the rubbish crisis but the answer has generally been: "Not in my backyard."

Italy's unification still has a lot of unfinished business.

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Italy country profile
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19 Jan 11 |  Europe

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